Helen Matthews Lewis. 1924-2022. (Photo by Parthenia Monagan)

Editor’s Note: Sociologist Helen Matthews Lewis died September 4, 2022. She has been called the “Grandmother of Appalachian Studies.” This essay is by Jack Wright, who was among the students to take one of Lewis’ early Appalachian studies courses.

As a Wise native and veteran of the Vietnam War, I was studying at Clinch Valley College (now the University of Virginia’s College at Wise) on the G.I. Bill in the fall of 1969. One of my classes, Appalachian seminar, was taught by Professor Helen Lewis and met on Thursday nights. I had first encountered Helen years before when she directed the college’s small library, which she had founded almost singlehandedly along with the county library.  

Lewis’s Appalachian seminar offered a different guest speaker or artist each week. (Later I learned it was the first such seminar offered at colleges within the region—a groundbreaking effort that contributed to the launch of the entire field of Appalachian studies.) She used half her salary to pay class expenses and honoraria for the guest presenters.

No other class I had taken at CVC had ever offered such diverse learning opportunities for students. Immediately we began to be exposed to varying thought about the Appalachian region—its history, culture, economics and politics. Author and lawyer Harry Caudill spoke about subjects from his groundbreaking book, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, a definitive text on poverty in Appalachia that was said to have encouraged LBJ’s War on Poverty. His lecture included a condemnation of aspects of the coal industry, especially strip mining, a practice that sprang up in large part directly after World War II. Reverend Jack Weller came to talk about his popular book, Yesterday’s People. David Zegeer, superintendent of Beth-Elkhorn Coal in Jenkins, Kentucky, spoke positively about the economic impact the coal industry had on the region, as did Bill Sturgill, coal magnate and president of the Kentucky Coal Association. Union organizer, civil rights activist, agitator and poet, the Rev. Don West, visited the class wearing his signature faded blue overalls and straw hat.

After each weekly presentation the floor opened for discussion and questions. One night when a presenter spoke positively about the welfare system, a middle-aged visitor stood up and loudly disagreed. The older husband of a class member, the provocateur disparaged welfare recipients. He claimed with his own authority they were lazy and no account, breeding babies to draw more welfare money. Several students stood up with voices raised, vehemently challenging the man’s statements. For several minutes a heated clash went back and forth before Professor Lewis decided to reel in the discussion. The debate pushed the boundaries of anything I ever encountered at the college. And it continued both in and out of the classroom, not just in clashes but in meaningful exchanges. 

A Celebration of Traditional Music

The seminar’s main assignment was to have a student project or paper presented by the end of the semester. I was not confident with my research and writing skills, so I thought hard on what to do for the requirement. I met with Professor Lewis and proposed that I present a concert featuring local musicians and several musicians from the college. The program was to be folk and acoustic music, and I was mulling over whom to invite.  

When I was growing up my mother would take me to Norton, Virginia, to shop on Saturdays. The Park Avenue sidewalk bustled with people. Cars honked and coal trucks blared through. It was there I first noticed a blind street singer with a guitar and a harmonica mounted on a rack, a tin cup attached to the front of his guitar. Dressed in a worn sports coat and white shirt, the man had a soft voice and a nylon-stringed guitar that pulled you in. I was captured. It was the first time I’d seen live music outside of the church.

A newspaper clip showing Helen Lewis participating in her last commencement at Clinch Valley College. The clip came from a scrapbook of Lewis and was used in the book Helen Matthews Lewis: Living Social Justice in Appalachia, edited by Judith Jennings and Patricia Beaver. For more about Lewis’ academic and social-action career, see Jennings’ 2017 essay in “History @ Work,” published by the National Council on Public History.

Mother handed me a dime to drop into his old tin cup. As the coin tinkled, he sang, “If I was on some foggy mountain top, I’d sail away to the west…” The harmonica was like nothing I’d ever heard. I learned he was Bill Denham. He lived in Norton and traveled from town to town with his minstrelsy, providing a meager living for his family. I told Helen that Bill would be one of the people I would bring to perform at the college.  

She mentioned I should also consider contacting Dock Boggs, who lived in nearby Needmore, Virginia, a retired coal miner and recording artist from the 1920s. I had heard the name but was unfamiliar with his music. My biggest surprise was her reaction to my proposal. She offered me $360 to pay musicians, a beggar’s mint though I had asked for no money. My idea now sat on solid ground with what seemed to me an enormous budget.  

I set the event’s date for the evening of December 4, 1969, the last night of the seminar, and I reserved the Jefferson Lounge, CVC’s largest venue other than the gym. The spacious lounge, connected to the college cafeteria, provided a natural stage and was a hangout for students, faculty and visitors.

Things began to fall into place quickly. Both Denham and Boggs agreed to play. I also contacted Earl Gilmore, a gay black piano player who sang blues and gospel and lived in Clinchco, Virginia.

Then I spoke with musicians I knew at CVC. Randall Hylton worked in the college business office and was known as a masterful guitar picker and singer who wrote much of his own material. Joe Smiddy, chancellor of the college, played a mountain dulcimer and sang ballads. Lavonne Baker and Mike Pendergast were both guitar players, folk singers and Clinch Valley students. All of these artists, professional and amateur, agreed to participate in what I had now titled the First Annual Appalachian Music. 

In the meantime I was becoming friends with Dock Boggs and his wife Sarah, who invited me to dinner at their home. Dock and Sarah spoke fondly of a musician named Mike Seeger, brother of famous folk singer Pete Seeger but well known in his own right in folk music circles. Dock mentioned that, thanks to Mike, he was touring and playing for large audiences—a dream come true. Then he spoke of when he was young. He was a rounder, a drinker, a brawler. When the depression bankrupted his record label, his music career floundered. At his wife’s urging, he quit music and went into the mines in Letcher County, Kentucky. After years of digging coal his breathing became harder. He had black lung. As a union man he had some retirement and health care.  

Helen Lewis with a group of underground coal miners. (Courtesy of Judith Jennings)

After retirement Dock resumed playing the banjo and received a call from Mike Seeger, who knew of all of Dock’s early recordings and came to Norton to hunt him down. Dock and Mike became quick friends. With Mike, Dock began to make appearances at national folk festivals and at Carnegie Hall. Seeger produced five long-play record albums of Dock’s music for the New York City record label Folkways. Dock was now enjoying a second, more lucrative music career and becoming better known than ever. But he was relatively unknown locally and had not played close to home in many years.

At Dock’s suggestion, I phoned his friend Kate Peters Sturgill in nearby Josephine, and she agreed to come. I figured my lineup was complete, but days later I received an unexpected letter. Mike Seeger asked if he might come and play for the same fee I had offered Dock. He lived in Chevy Chase, Maryland—a long way to come for $60. Elated by his letter, I immediately wrote him back, adding him to the program.

The evening of the concert I was approached by folk singer and activist Guy Carawan who had heard of the event. He volunteered to play and he put on a great set.

The press release I submitted to the Coalfield Progress made the front page with the headline “Folk Festival to Feature Mike Seeger.” Our evening concert was a great success with over 200 people attending.  

A Visit to New York City

That December, with the end of the fall semester, Helen Lewis had planned a class trip to New York City during Christmas break for interested students. Having never been to the city, I signed up. Travel and housing were paid for, and students only had to provide spending money.  Helen had said earlier, when she pitched the idea for the new class, “How are you going to learn about urban sociology if you don’t go to an urban setting?”   

So, she arranged for us to travel to New York City by chartered bus. We were housed at the Sloan YMCA in midtown while visiting with some of the Puerto Rican communities.  A group of Puerto Rican activists and militants, The Young Lords, had taken over the Spanish United Methodist Church in East Harlem.  We visited them in the church, where they explained to us that their protest was to seek neighborhood empowerment and self-determination, with the aim of securing better health care, childcare and nutrition. Our group also attended a theater show, participated in sensitivity training, and ate some great group meals, often gourmet.

On the last morning of our NYC urban adventure, we gathered in the lounge of the Y to await the arrival of Doug “Youngblood” Blakely for our final presentation. Youngblood was a founding leader in the Young Patriots Organization. He spoke about his group of Appalachian migrants living in Chicago’s Uptown, formed to support his community against police brutality, housing discrimination, and unfair landlords. He impressed us with his deep sense of radical purpose. In closing, he said, “Us Appalachians are a nation within a nation.” I had never thought about that before. It stuck with me.          

Helen Lewis at the Appalshop Christmas Ball. Among many other projects, Lewis led a multi-year film project on the history of Appalachia. (Photo by Parthenia Monagan)

This urban study trip had been rewarding—exciting, enjoyable, and educational. The trip was paid for by Helen. Many in our group had bonded, and in fact, two of them later married. As we waited for the chartered bus to arrive, a news alert came on TV. Jock Yablonski, the UMWA reform candidate, his wife, and 25-year-old daughter were found murdered in their Clarksville, Pennsylvania, home. Much later it came to light, as many suspected, that UMWA President Tony Boyle had ordered the murders. The event dampened our return home. But 1969 had been a formative year in my education, and Spring Semester 1970 looked to continue with great experiential learning both in and out of the classroom. This type of “hands-on” learning became one of the hallmarks of Dr. Helen Matthews Lewis’s long professional career. 

Earth Day and More

In the social problems sociology class in spring semester of 1970, Helen divided us into groups to study county taxes and land ownership by looking up records in the courthouse. We also researched local banking to find who served on the boards of directors. All the while, we were reading and discussing coal dust and black lung, underground safety in the mines, welfare and welfare rights, and the newly formed group, Miners for Democracy. Helen, the master educator, also included us in planning for the first national Earth Day celebration.     

On our campus the observance of Earth Day was scheduled as “A Community Forum of Environmental Problems” on April 22, 1970, as a teach-in supporting environmental protection. Helen made a budget with elaborate plans. There would be featured guests speaking about current conditions in the southern Appalachian coalfield and pollution. Coincidentally, a headline in the local paper had announced that nearby, “North Fork Pound Reservoir Fish Being Killed by Chemicals.”

In the forum that day students participated in a panel that discussed arsenic in apples. Wise County produced more apples than any other area in Virginia except for Senator Harry Flood Byrd’s massive orchards in Winchester. In all the years I had worked in Elwood Orchards picking and packing apples, I never considered the content of the spray that was used to keep the bugs and blight away.

The forum also addressed other concerns including conservation, environment in the Tennessee Valley, strip mine reclamation processes, and population growth. The keynote speaker was famed author Harry Caudill.

Another Concert

As part of our Earth Day forum, Professor Lewis asked me to organize a Spring Folk Music Concert. I contacted Jean Ritchie, known for her folk songs from her Eastern Kentucky coalfield roots. Her recent song, “Now Is the Cool of the Day,” fit perfectly the Earth Day theme:  “And my Lord, He said unto me/ Do you like my garden so fair?/ You may live in this garden, if you keep the waters clean/ And I’ll return in the cool of the day. Now is the cool of the day”  

Helen Lewis’ handmade pine casket. Lewis had the casket for years and asked friends to paint images and messages on it. (Photo by Dudley Wilson)

I also invited Mike Seeger back, and he brought along his soon-to-be wife, Alice Gerrard—two musicians for the price of one. When Dock Boggs was too ill to perform for the evening concert, Mike phoned his friend, legendary bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley in nearby McClure, Virginia. That night, Ralph, sunburned from mowing his fields, appeared with Mike playing mandolin and Alice on guitar. With tunes like “Little Birdie,” Stanley’s first performance at the college proved to please the crowd. He played for free. Again, I emceed the show and sang some songs, honored to be in such company.  

The Earth Day celebration was another successful event that Professor Lewis had set in motion, more complex and educational than the concert held just four months earlier. These two folk music programs began to build momentum for a larger happening. Soon I began thinking about putting on an outdoor festival in September that would include traditional music, gospel, and rock and roll. It eventually became the Dock Boggs Memorial Festival, still held annually in Wise County.

A Blind Eye on the Civil Rights Act

On another occasion, Helen arranged a presentation in the lecture hall of the new science building featuring a retired coal miner and union organizer from neighboring Harlan County, Kentucky. Professor Lewis introduced him. Bill Worthington, a plainly dressed Black man with a short haircut and sparkle in his eye, had spent many years mining and working to help organize the union there. Soft spoken and clear eyed, he told of the struggles, of the wins and defeats in a legendary place and time, Bloody Harlan. He was now organizing for the National Black Lung Association, a formidable task. Mr. Worthington, disabled after a roof fall in the mine severely injured his right foot, spoke plain and eloquently about his subject. Black Lung or pneumoconiosis is a deadly disease miners contract from breathing coal dust in and around coal mining sites. In 1971, most of the 48 students in class had never heard of Black Lung that was now becoming a political issue. The Black Lung Association and the Miners for Democracy were lobbying congress for compensation, but it was an uphill fight with coal company officials and some members of congress opposing them at every turn.

As was usual that semester, after our Tuesday night class adjourned, a small consort of students would reconvene, often at the local watering hole, Bertha’s 23, for beer and burgers. There we continued the dialogue from the class, often accompanied by the seminar speaker and sometimes a professor or two.

We invited Bill Worthington to join us. When we arrived, our group walked into the back dining room of the beer joint and took our usual seats at a familiar booth. I had drunk beer there since I was eighteen. 

After getting comfortable, Jerome, one of our classmates, asked Bill, “How did you live through it? It must have been like a war zone back then.”

We were all ears as Bill answered, “It was a war, but we believed in the fight. We were being done wrong by the coal company and we had to fight for our rights. In many ways it hasn’t changed.”            

As we sat and talked for about 10 minutes, we realized that the waitress had passed by our booth several times, but no one had come to take our orders. Jerome and I looked at each other and decided to walk over to the Dutch door to the kitchen and summon a waiter. Fred, Bertha’s 40-year-old son, came to the door.

“We’d like to put in some orders, Fred,” Jerome said.

“You can shut me down if you want to but we ain’t serving that n***** you brought in here,” Fred answered.

Jerome said, “You must be kidding.”

Fred said, “No. I have to respect the wishes of my customers. I will not serve you.”

With that we returned to our booth and told our crowd what was going on. We all sat there kindly astonished and quietly left, embarrassed for Bill, whom we had invited. But Bill seemed unphased. Our teacher, Helen, invited us to come to her home. Jerome and I stopped on the way and bought beer and snacks for the group. She was agitated about the event. She said, “Something must be done about this. This is a civil rights violation. It’s 1970 for heaven’s sake.”

The next day still fuming I considered what Helen had said. Back at school word spread through the student lounge of the racial incident. I approached several Black students and described what had happened. Being from Eastern Virginia, they were a bit surprised to hear the news. I asked them if they would be interested in accompanying me that afternoon back down to Bertha’s 23 to see for themselves and they agreed. I mentioned that if we were not served, we would take our story to the local weekly newspaper, The Coalfield Progress, and report the incidents to the editor.

So we made the trip back to the scene, walked in and again were refused service. The Black students seemed less upset than I. Then we headed down Highway 23 to the newspaper’s office on Park Avenue in nearby Norton.

Upon entering the building, I asked to see the editor and we were escorted upstairs to his office. Carroll Tate was a well-respected man around the county, acknowledged as jovial and generous and was known to like bourbon. “Whisky” Tate was his nickname.               

As we stood before his desk, he welcomed us and asked, “What can I do for you?” I took the initiative and spoke up.

“Mr. Tate last night at Bertha’s we were refused service because we had a black man, a coal miner in our party. So, we thought we’d come by and tell you about it. Today the same thing happened with us college students. They refused to wait on us because of these black students here.”

He smiled and looked out the window for a moment while I unraveled more details of our story. After hearing me out, he swiveled in his chair and asked, “What do you expect me to do about it?”

Flabbergasted, I said, “Mr. Tate, isn’t this a news story? Bertha’s is a public place. There should be a news story. These events are something our community should know about and be ashamed of. Refusing to serve blacks. It has to change.”

He retorted, “This is just a personal matter. We won’t report on this. If I covered something like this, I might lose advertisers. After all, it’s just a tempest in a teapot.”

“Then you refuse to cover it?” I said.

He said no, so we marched out of his office and traveled back to the college lounge.

This incident bothered me and my sense of righteousness. In my naiveté it taught me my world was not as just and fair as I had once taken for granted. I also wondered if it was right of me to get the Black students to go back down to the beer joint and on to the newspaper.

Looking back over my college years, the influence of Helen Lewis was pivotal in setting me on a path as an activist and, eventually, an educator myself. In 1971, she supported my application to the Ford Foundation for a fellowship that led me to build a recording studio and to found June Appal Records at Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky, where I would work for 12 years. Much later, while teaching classes at Berea College and Ohio University, I led field trips and designed classes around Helen’s principles. She was an inspiration not only to me, but to countless other students at Clinch Valley College and other institutions around Appalachia. She has surely earned her title, “Grandmother of Appalachian Studies.”

Jack Wright is a filmmaker, audio producer, musician, and actor who lives in southeast Ohio. He is retired from the faculty of the Ohio University School of Film.

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